In 2012, the cultural landscape of Indonesia’s Bali province was inscribed as a World Heritage Site – a place of “outstanding universal value”, to be protected and reserved for all humankind.
Core to this heritage inscription is the Balinese subaks: the farmers’ organizations that collectively manage irrigation systems on rice terraces, as well as water temples. Still in practice, the subak system dates back to at least the 12th century, and embodies the Balinese philosophical principle Tri Hita Karana (three causes of goodness), which seeks to create harmony between humans and the spiritual realm, between humans and nature, and among humans.
The subaks ensure the equitable distribution of water to farms, maintain the irrigation system, mobilize resources and mutual assistance, resolve conflicts, and ensure the performance of rituals.
The UNESCO inscription resulted from a decade’s worth of collaboration by public- and private sector actors, academia, NGOs and other supporters who envisioned a broad, participatory and inclusive management system for the site, involving government agencies at different levels, village leaders, and the subaks themselves.
Building consensus for action
In 2013, at the request of the Government of Indonesia, SEI launched a two-year project to support the development of a participatory and effective management structure for the site.
“Bali had just been newly inscribed then, and it was clear that support was needed to implement the goals of the nomination,” recalls Albert Salamanca, a research fellow in SEI’s Asia Centre who led the project. “SEI’s intention was to help the Balinese jump-start the management of the site, so that the objectives of the inscription are achieved.”
The project focused on Catur Angga Batukaru (CAB), which has the largest number of subaks and villages in the World Heritage Site. SEI conducted several rounds of interviews and focus group discussions in four villages – Rejasa, Sangketan, Wongaya Gede and Jatiluwih – and provided organizational coaching and capacity-building for the pekasehs, the heads of the subaks.
In May 2014, SEI helped organize an assembly of the pekasehs of the 20 subaks of the CAB, where they developed a collective action plan to address key concerns. As a result of this assembly, the pekasehs established a coordination forum, with a formal code (awig-awig) laying out goals and responsibilities. The King of Tabanan ritually formalized the document in December 2014.
Landscape management challenges
Bali a relative rarity among World Heritage Sites – a living cultural landscape – and it is still struggling with implementation of its management plan. A key concern is that although it was the subak traditions that led to the site’s inscription, the farmers were not much involved during the site nomination process and were not aware of the implications to their lives, livelihoods and landscape.
The farmers are also struggling with a number of problems, such as declining productivity of their farms that is making them question farming as a viable livelihood. They also face escalating costs of rituals and ceremonies, decreasing water flow, lack of farm support, ongoing land use changes, and tourism impacts.
Moreover, farming practices have changed, with the introduction of new varieties and technologies and the use of chemical fertilizers. Maintaining traditional organic rice farming in this context is challenging: substantial quantities of organic fertilizer are needed, for example, but they are more expensive than chemical ones. There is increasing competition for water. And young people are taking jobs in tourism or moving away, leaving rice cultivation to older people. Even when younger people return, they often lack the skills or interest to farm.
These issues raise important questions about the long-term viability of the subaks. Is it enough if they continue to operate, even if they are mostly a tourist attraction? Or how can their rich heritage be truly preserved, as a living entity, amid such drastically changing conditions?
The farmers themselves are optimistic, viewing the World Heritage Site listing as an opportunity to address the challenges faced by the subaks. Agus Nugroho, of SEI Asia, says protecting farming livelihoods is crucial to maintaining the integrity of the World Heritage Site.
“It is imperative that the profitability of farming is ensured,” Nugroho says. “This would mean supporting the production and marketing of organic rice and ensuring that the farmers share in the revenues from tourism.”